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shameless pleading





Shadow of a Doubt

Trust me.

Dear Word Detective:  I’ve got two questions for you: 1) where did the phrase “beyond a shadow of a doubt” come from, and 2) which is more correct, “beyond a shadow of a doubt” or “without a shadow of a doubt”? I believe the latter is not right, maybe because doubt probably casts a long shadow no matter what, so you want to be beyond that shadow. I’ve been hearing the “without” version on stupid late-night infomercials. — P.J.S. Hutchinson.

Hey, I love infomercials. I saw a weirdly fascinating one for a vacuum cleaner the other day. It’s a cheap imitation Dyson, and they spent the first few minutes lavishly praising the real Dyson and its supposedly awesome virtues. It could have been an unusually informative Dyson commercial. Suddenly, even though we own two elderly but functional Sears vacuum cleaners, I wanted a Dyson. But then they pointed out, rather bluntly, “Let’s face it. You’re in no position to spend $600 on an awesome vacuum cleaner, so you might as well buy ours.” Thanks, guys, I feel poorer already.

“Beyond a shadow of a doubt” and similar phrases mean “absolutely true, without any possibility of negation” applied to a statement of fact.  As such, “beyond a shadow of a doubt” doesn’t work well with subjective statements of preference, taste, or emotional state, and announcing that “I am, beyond a shadow of a doubt, happier with my cheapo plastic vacuum than you will ever be with your dumb old Dyson” is unlikely to be accepted by listeners. “Beyond a shadow of a doubt” also has no place in a courtroom (except as hyperbolic rhetoric), where the standard in US criminal trials is usually that the defendant must be found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a lower hurdle than “beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

Just when “beyond a shadow of a doubt” first appeared is hard to pin down, but the equivalent “without doubt” (meaning “absolutely true”) appeared in the early 16th century, and “shadow of a doubt” was popular in the 19th century. “Doubt,” of course, basically means “uncertainty” and comes ultimately from the Latin “dubitare,” meaning “to waver in opinion.” “Doubt” is also related to the word “dubious,” which can mean both “full of doubt” (“Bob was dubious about his chances of surviving the camping trip”) and “of uncertain outcome; questionable” (“The dubious land deal backfired and Jim landed in jail”).

The key part of “shadow of a doubt,” however, is “shadow.” Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary in its most basic literal sense as “Comparative darkness, especially that caused by interception of light; a tract of partial darkness produced by a body intercepting the direct rays of the sun or other luminary,” our modern “shadow” first appeared in the 13th century from the same Germanic roots that gave us “shade.”

Apart from that literal “you’re standing in my light” sense, “shadow” has acquired a slew of figurative meanings over the past few centuries. A “shadow” can be a person who closely (and sometimes surreptitiously) follows (“shadows”) us, a weak or vague version or vestige of something or someone (“a shadow of the star he once was”), a sense of gloom, an emotional impediment (“Bob’s accident cast a shadow over their friendship”), the stubble of a beard on a man’s face (“five o’clock shadow”), or the influence or proximity of a person, place or thing (“His years in the shadow of his more famous brother were spent in the shadows of the Rockies, which he loathed”).

The use of “shadow” to mean a “dim vestige” or “remnant” of something once grand mentioned above leads us to the “shadow” in “shadow of doubt.” Here “shadow” means “a small amount, a trace or hint” of something, as opposed to something solid or substantial. Thus the “shadow” in “shadow of a doubt” should not be taken too literally, as if doubt itself were casting a shadow from under which one must step in order to be trusted. It’s more the sense that the “shadow of a doubt” is a just a tiny hint, an inexpressible hunch, that something that seems true might be less than absolutely true.

Given that we’re talking a metaphorical “shadow” twice-removed from that “blocking the light” sense, the distinction between “beyond a shadow of a doubt” and “without a shadow of a doubt” is nearly meaningless. “Beyond” does evoke a process of trust or belief gradually increasing to the point of complete certainty, but in the end “beyond a shadow” and “without a shadow” describe the same state of trustworthiness, and both phrases are considered “correct.”

1 comment to Shadow of a Doubt

  • Molly

    Hi! Thank you for this article. I stumbled upon it as I was also curious about the origin of the phrase, because I found something very similar in Augustine’s Confessions! Check it out: “omnes dubitationis tenebrae diffugerunt.” -8.12.29 “All darkness (or shadows) of doubt dispersed.” It seems to me that this idiom goes much further back than you might think. I wonder if St. Augustine himself was the first to use it?

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